Thrifty Department Puts Old Montgomery Wards Building to Good Use
Have you ever driven by the old Montgomery Wards building on South Dora and wondered what it is used for now? If you have lived in the Ukiah area for a few decades or more, you will remember the large department store, which first opened in 1965. I have a distinct childhood memory of shopping for a washing machine at Montgomery Wards with my family. The store closed its doors in the 1990s, and Ukiah Unified School District acquired the building in 2001 when we purchased the property to build Grace Hudson Elementary School. Initially, the district planned to transform the building into a district office and transportation facility, but projected construction costs were too high. Instead, the former retail space became the district’s warehouse and center of operations, meeting two critical needs.
Gabe Sherman, Director of Maintenance, Operations, Transportation (MOT), recently gave me a guided tour of the facility. It truly is an amazing place! The building covers nearly one and a half acres and is full of almost every kind of school-related item imaginable, including classroom furniture, educational materials, textbooks, old maps, appliances, special education equipment, filing cabinets, lumber, sporting goods, auto shop parts, scrap wood, paint, building materials, and much, much more.
Although at first glance the sheer volume appeared impossible to make heads or tails of, Gabe showed me that, in fact, he and his dedicated staff have, over several years, brought order to this enormous space. There is one large section with rows and rows of leftover building and construction materials from various school site projects from years past. The staff uses these materials, such as ceiling tiles and paint, for repairs at the many district-owned sites. Another section has discarded appliances, like old air conditioners, that are used for replacement parts. The maintenance staff must rely on these salvaged materials to keep running the functional but obsolete units the district relies on. The back of the warehouse has classroom furniture with desks of all shapes and sizes, chairs, and even chalkboards. A room in the middle of the building houses non-sensitive human resources and fiscal records, as well as old files. I am only giving you a glimpse into this vast space; truly, you have to see it to believe it.
For district property to be stored here, sites must identify an item as “obsolete surplus” and have the Ukiah Unified School Board approve its removal. Once this happens, several options become available. Property in decent condition that could be used by another site at some point is kept in the warehouse. Items that are deemed no longer useful to the district but have some monetary value are sold on a government auction site. If items remain unsold, they are either recycled or trashed. There is a large cargo container for recyclables where all metal scrap that can be removed from obsolete items is placed.
As stewards of our public resources, Ukiah Unified employees strive to make good use of the incredibly varied materials required for a district to function. At the warehouse Gabe and his team know that especially in tight economic times, there is often less money allocated to purchasing new equipment and/or repair parts. With this knowledge, they recognize the value in keeping items that others might throw out. For example, Ukiah Unified recently replaced light fixtures at a school site, and the warehouse staff is keeping the old lights, knowing that one day, they may be necessary to replace broken ones. While to the untrained eye the warehouse may appear to be a boneyard, it is in fact full of useful treasures.